Ponzi Schemes 101: How You Can Avoid Being a Victim

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Bernie Madoff Pleads Guilty To $50 Billion Scheme To De-Fraud Investors
Stephen Chernin/Getty ImagesFinancier and convicted investing fraud mastermind Bernard Madoff.
History has seen countless shams, schemes, thefts and frauds -- but how many con artists put their names into the language by their efforts? Charles Ponzi was an Italian con man who became famous (or infamous) in the 1920's when the pyramid investment scheme he ran collapsed spectacularly. By the time the dust settled, it was clear he's stolen $20 million from investors -- the equivalent of $200 million in today's dollars.

When the story hit the papers and the size of the scam became clear, Ponzi's name became mud, and was forever linked to flim-flam schemes. The truth though, is that investment frauds have happened for centuries, and they are still frequent today. The most famous and largest to date was that of Bernie Madoff, who bilked investors over 30 years out of an estimated $65 billion in 2008. It's estimated that at any given time, there are dozens of active Ponzi schemes that have yet to be exposed.

What It Is

At the heart of every classic Ponzi scheme are two things: an investment with (allegedly) an exceptionally attractive return, and a great story about just why the returns can be so extraordinary. Promissory notes are many times offered at high rates of return -- so high that they should set off alarm bells among potential buyers. When an investment promises a guaranteed compounded monthly return, you can almost guarantee you are in trouble. These fraudulent promissory notes are never collateralized with anything of real value.

But the scam then must produce returns as promised for its investors, and usually, they do, for months or even many years -- double digit rates of return year after year with no loss. How? With fraud, of course!

In most of these cases there is never any actual investing being done (though in some cases, there are initial attempts at legitimate investment in the short term). Instead, the "profits" come via the old "robbing from Peter to pay Paul" method. New investors' money goes right back out the door to pay older investors, thus keeping them happily unaware that their original capital is at serious risk. Or rather, some of the money is used to pay returns to investors; much of it goes into the con artists pockets.

The long-term success of such an evil enterprise is highly dependent on the salesmanship of the con artists involved. Still, regardless of how good at selling they are, the reckoning will eventually come when too many investors want their original capital back -- not just their dividends and returns. The house of cards can also collapse if too little new money is taken in to pay investors their promised returns. For example, during the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, people went running for their capital to get them through some tough times, and investors in Bernard Madoff's funds started trying to divest. He didn't have nearly enough cash on hand to pay people back, nor the investments to liquidate, and his decades-long scam was exposed.

Despite all the press the Madoff case received, there are still crooks trying to use similar methods to steal your money. New schemes are uncovered every year, and usually after they are exposed, the investors manage to recoup about 5 cents on the dollar of their money. Those who might have been considered lucky enough to have gotten out before the collapse aren't home free: bankruptcy trustees will go after them in what is called a "clawback"; even charities that received ill-gotten donations from the con artists are subject to having to reimburse of the donations.

One more subtle problem these scammers produce is that fear of them causes many people to shy away from legitimate investment opportunities. But rather than giving in to that fear, get educated instead. Here are some ways to differentiate between legitimate investments and scams.

Signs of a Possible Ponzi Scheme
  • You never receive real collateral for your investments, just promissory notes and statements
  • The rates of return you're getting seem too good to be true (20 percent annually is generally the low end of these promises but Charles Ponzi promised 50 percent and even 100 percent rates of return)
  • You earn consistent strong returns with no losses, regardless of market behavior. There are legitimate financial products that offer and deliver stable returns with no market risk (such as some annuities) but these are backed by old, valuable companies with many assets on the books. And they don't pay those too-good-to-be-true returns.
  • You're told complicated yet compelling stories about why the returns are so strong. Ponzi himself told the tale of postal reply coupons that could be bought and sold with different currencies producing huge profits
  • If you hear the terms "exclusive private placement," that can be a red flag that something is amiss.
  • Recognize that new start up ventures are more prone to be frauds than older ventures, but remember that Madoff's scheme ran for 30 years.
Steps to Take Before You Invest a Dime
  • Do your due diligence by researching the salesperson personally, as well as the company offering the investment. In these days of Google, and with the easy ability to to a criminal background check, you'd be foolish not to check these out. Get an official photo identification of your salesman. Is he really John Smith, or is that an alias?
  • Check with all relevant regulatory authorities and the Better Business Bureau for any complaints or investigations of any kind. These could include the Securities and Exchange Commission, state financial and securities commissioner's office, along with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
  • Ask what the collateral is for your investment
  • Find out who will be handling the closing of this investment? Are you giving them a check made out to their company? Maybe your attorney should handle all paperwork and work on your behalf to help verify whom you're dealing with.
  • Referrals and references are important, but not nearly enough for a large investment because the people referring you could be victims of the con and not even know it yet
  • Don't let greed overcome your good judgment. If your inner alarm bells are going off, listen to them and find another investment
The risk of getting taken a Ponzi scheme is much reduced if you invest with major brokerages and insurance carriers. Working through these kinds of companies doesn't guarantee a good return, but it does give you the opportunity to make or lose money via above-board investments.

When you deal in private placements, venture capital, and private offerings, you must take extra care and time to evaluate that you are in fact, being offered a legitimate opportunity. There are tremendous amounts of money made and lost in such ventures but the risks are higher, so never put all your hard earned eggs in one basket.

Finally, if you're going to take a chance and make a higher risk investment, invest only an amount that won't seriously affect your lifestyle if it's lost, whether due to the natural vagaries of the markets, or to the scheming of Ponzi's modern disciples.

John Jamieson is the best-selling author of "The Perpetual Wealth System." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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